Friday, October 24, 2014

Recommended Reading for 10/24: Colder

It's October, and I usually spend my favorite month doing recommended readings for one of my favorite genres: horror comics. I've fallen behind on that this month, but I'm hoping to remedy that today.

"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This quote could be attributed as accurately to Colder, the horror series written by Paul Tobin and drawn by Juan Ferreyra. It's a tale of madness, compassion, love, hunger, and cold.

When I first read solicitation copy for Colder, I was surprised. I really like Paul Tobin as a writer, but I was familiar with his writing almost exclusively as all ages work, including the Eisner nominated Bandette, the charming Banana Sunday, both with Colleen Coover, and Marvel's late and lamented all ages "Marvel Adventures" line. But if Mark Millar's best work can be on Superman Adventures, than a writer known for all ages comics can write horror. And mixing in the lavish and horrific art from Juan Ferreyra, it seemed a no brainer to sample it, and it was well worth it.

One of the thing that immediately grabbed my attention about Colder was the fact that it's a horror comic that isn't depending on any of the classic monster tropes. I don't have anything against classic monsters; far from it. I love The Walking Dead, Tomb of Dracula, and any number of other monster themed comics. But I'm impressed when someone thinks outside the box. The monster that Paul Tobin creates for this series is Nimble Jack, who is an invisible psychic vampire of sorts. He feeds off of, and inspires, insanity. So not only do we have a monster who can move hidden through the world and views people as just food, but one who can do one of the things that any thinking person dreads; he can push you to lose your mind. There's something terrifying about being lost in your own mind, and Tobin played with that fear in a way that made my skin crawl.

A great villain/monster isn't the heart of a horror comic, though. If you don't have leads that you care about, then the comic is nothing more than an exercise in how much gore or terror you can squeeze between the pages (there is also the Tales from the Crypt model, where you often are looking for the lead to get their comeuppance, but those work best in short pieces, I find). The people who are the heart of the story are Declan and Reece. The first issue opens in an asylum in 1941, some seventy years earlier than the rest of the story, and we see Declan infected with... something by Jack as the asylum burns around them. Flash forward to the present, where Reece is a nurse who is taking care of mysterious patient, Declan, who has been in a waking coma for as long as anyone can remember. After the care facility he was in closed, Reece actually took Declan in, a Declan who does not seem to have aged a day since the 40s, and one whose body temperature is preternaturally cold.

Reece is tough, resourceful, and has her feet planted firmly in a rational world. All that changes when Jack returns, speaks briefly to Declan and leaves. Declan then speaks to Reece for the first time, which is understandably shocking to Reece. Declan takes her out, and tries to explain everything that has happened to him that he can remember, but is disturbed by Jack, who he knows he must avoid. because Jack has been basically aging Declan like a fine wine for eighty years, waiting for the feats of all feasts. To escape, Declan takes Reece into another world, or gives her a new perspective on this world, the one shared by those who aren't in touch with reality as we all understand it. One way or the other, it's a dark world full of monsters and weirdness, and Reece does not take well to it. Now both Reece and Declan smell of insanity, a smell that attracts Jack, and it's a race against time to save Reece before Declan's body temperature drops even lower and kills him.

The coldness that the title refers to is Declan's, but it's more than just a way to preserve Declan. Declan's memory of his time before Jack infected him is limited, and he doesn't want to remember, because he's fairly sure that he did horrible things. He also has a gift, sort of the mirror image of Jack's. While Jack feeds on madness, driving people insane and eventually to suicide, Declan can reverse madness as well as increase it, but only at the cost of precious degrees of body temperature. Every time he steps into the realm of madness or helps someone,it moves him closer to death or to being Jack's frozen prey. It's a great set up, since there's now a ticking clock on top of the supernatural predator hunting our heroes and Reece's own increasing separation from reality.

Tobin ratchets the tension up throughout the series using all these elements, building to a battle between Declan and Jack for Reece. And it's a deeply personal battle for Declan, as it's fairly clear that he has fallen in love with Reece during his time with her. He's been aware of everything that happened to him, and he sees what a good person Reece is. The addition of the love story might seem like a bit too much, but it folds so nicely into everything else going on. The fact that Reece is completely unsure of what to make of Declan and isn't sure what she feels about him adds a dimension to the relationship, making it not a simple girl-meets-boy-with-a-supernatural-affliction and falls in love with him story, which let's be fair, is a genre trope that has been done a lot in recent years as well.

The series has an air of mystery to it that adds to the sense of unease. Exactly what Jack is and how he feeds is parsed out gradually, and I haven't revealed all the details of that. And Declan's mysterious past, exactly why he was in the asylum, what the doctors there were doing to him and the other patients, and what exactly his capabilities are, is teased out, keeping the reader on their toes and just a bit off balance, not letting him or her get comfortable enough to settle in. That's what the best horror stories do, keep you looking over your shoulder, metaphorically and, let's be frank, sometimes literally.

I don't want to talk details about how the series ends, but I do want to say just how perfectly in tone the ending is. The best kind of horror stories, ones like The Exorcist and The Stand, end with at least a touch of ambiguity. It might be a black and white world, with monsters in it, but even when white wins, black is still out there and it's fingers are still creeping into the world. The release of a sequel tells you at least one of the protagonists survives, but the condition either of them might be in? Well read the book and find out.

The series would have been a good read with any artist, but artist Juan Ferreyra takes the work up to an entirely different level. I love an artist who can draw very expressive and distinctive faces, and Ferreyra hits that one out of the park. The various looks of madness and hunger in Jack, the confusion in Reece, and the lost looks of Declan are perfect. And the way he draws Jack's body, contorting in unnatural ways adds to the wrongness of everything about him.

Those skills are important for any artist, but for an artist on a horror comic, there's a skill that is just as important: monsters. And Ferreyra shines there even brighter. The time spent in the world of the insane is a time filled with monsters. Flayed giants, hellhounds, things made of bones, and the deformed perceptions of the mad as to what they look like themselves ooze all over the page. The world itself is a rundown, haunted looking city that feels like menace waits around every corner, and it does.

I've heard it said about colorists that if you notice their work, they're doing something wrong, which is a statement I couldn't disagree with more, and I want to draw special attention to Ferreyra and Eduardo Ferreyra and Laura Binaghi, who are credited with color assist on the series. The difference in colors between the real world and the world of the insane is part of what makes that world so disturbing. And the slow shift in Declan's color, as he gets colder, is a great visual cue to his state; without it, the pressure of Declan's situation would not be as palpable.

Horror is a genre that is well suited to comics. It combines the visceral, of the still panel and the image, with the imagination, as you craft the flow of the action. A well done horror comic will draw you in and leave you unsettled. Colder is one such comic, one that leaves you wondering just how tenuous our hold on the world is, and what exactly might be waiting in the dark corners of our own minds. It's a great read, but if I might make one suggestion before you pick it up: Make sure you have a warm blanket to curl up under once you start. You'll need it.

Oh, and in case you needed any other incentive, in one panel, Jack turns into a werewolf, and Declan punches him out.

Pretty sweet, huh?

Colder is available in a trade paperback from Dark Horse Comics at comic shops and on-line. The first issue of the sequel, Colder: The Bad Seed, was released this past Wednesday. The creators are also currently collaborating on Prometheus: Fire & Stone, part of the Prometheus/Aliens/Predator crossover, also from Dark Horse.

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